Don’t expect change to come right away, but we do see a day when the pro peloton will be populated with disc brake-equipped road bikes. Photo by Graham Watson
Consider this hypothetical situation: It’s the waning moments of a critical mountain stage at the 2015 Tour de France. Rain is cascading down in buckets. A lone leader crests the final climb, facing only a long descent to the finish, which is situated in a small town at the base of the mountain. The road is steep and twisty. Our lone rider’s bike is equipped with a set of lightweight carbon fiber wheels and traditional rim brakes.
What happens next may have as much to do with luck (or bad luck) as it does with skill. Our imaginary rider might win the stage — or he might take one too many risks and plummet off the side of the road. For as any cyclist knows, no matter what the manufacturers tell us about special brake tracks or revolutionary brake pad compounds, using rim brakes to slow down rain slicked composite wheels is risky business.
“When it rains you definitely feel a lot less safe on carbon wheels,” admitted Zak Dempster, who rides for Team NetApp-Endura and finished 152nd at this year’s Tour de France. “A lot of times you pull the brakes and nothing happens right away. Then you start slowing down. I would certainly like to see something more reliable.”
That something, many would argue, is already here: disc brakes. They’re not impacted by wet weather conditions and have been the standard on mountain bikes for years. They also allow users to run wider tires, which typically provide better traction and have lower rolling resistance.
Disc brake-equipped road bikes also making rapid inroads in the general consumer market. Shimano and SRAM both offer road-specific disk brake component packages, and nearly every major bike manufacturer has a least one model spec’d with a disc braking system.
Long descents, especially when roads are wet, are two of the big arguments favoring disc brakes. Photos by Graham Watson
In mid July, Giant launched it’s new endurance-oriented 2015 Defy line, and all but the low-end alloy models are equipped with rotors. That move from the world’s largest bike maker seems a clear indicator that change is in the works at the sport’s highest level.
“There was supposed to be a meeting to discuss it the day before the Tour de France started, but then it got postponed to Eurobike,” said Jon Swanson, Giant’s global road category manager, referencing the cycling industry’s largest trade show, which is held in late August in Friedrichshafen, Germany. “But it’s no secret that there is an ongoing conversation around disc brakes between the industry and the UCI (bike racing’s world governing body) about when and how they are going to be implemented into the WorldTour. It’s coming. There just needs to be a date and an agreement amongst all the manufacturers involved in terms of tolerances and fit and finish. And of course that’s hard to nail down.”
Swanson believes the 2015 season is too soon. His guess is 2016.
Now consider another hypothetical: It’s the final kilometer of a first-week sprint stage at the 2016 Tour de France. The yellow jersey awaits the day’s winner. The bunch is all together and flying. Wheels touch. A dozen riders tumble to the tarmac. Bikes and bodies pile on top of each other. As any cycling fan knows, it’s an all to frequent scene in the world of professional racing.
Now add to that equation bikes equipped with disc brakes, rotors heated up from the braking required to negotiate a chain of roundabouts that precede our fantasy final dash to the finish. We wont paint an overly macabre scene. But it doesn’t take a wild imagination to conjure up images of what hot metal discs could do to human flesh.
What happens when there’s a huge pile-up and bikes (and rotors) are flying around? Photo by Graham Watson
“That’s just one of the reason why I think it’s a horrible idea,” said Alex Banyay, a mechanic for Garmin-Sharp, which finished 19th in the team classification and had one stage win at the 2014 Tour de France. “You have 15-20 guys in a crash and you have discs flying around, somebody could lose a finger. It’s also possible I could lose a finger trying to do a wheel change. It’s also possible I could knock out one of the pads while trying to do a wheel change. It’s also possible I can’t even get the wheel in when trying to do the wheel change.”
Banyay clearly resides at the cynical end of the technology spectrum, but all his points contain at least nuggets of validity. There’s no way he could lean out a team car window and make brake adjustments to a disc-equipped bike. Banyay also could have mentioned the extra weight current disc brake systems add (200-300 grams), and the lack of a consistent axle standard for the current crop of disc-brake equipped road bikes.